A partisan vision at the Vatican? Further thoughts on that Civilta Cattolica essay

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 19, 2017

A week after the appearance of the Spadaro-Figueroa rant against American conservatives, I am still shaking my head with disbelief, wondering how a semi-official Vatican journal could have published such a harshly partisan and grossly misinformed analysis of American politics. I am not alone.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was characteristically polite but firm in his critique, describing the already infamous Civilta Cattolica essay as “an exercise in dumbing down and inadequately presenting the nature of Catholic/evangelical cooperation on religious freedom and other key issues.” Archbishop Chaput—who has been a prime mover in Catholic-Evangelical cooperation, and thus implicitly a target of the Spadaro-Figueroa diatribe—pointed out the absurdity of the suggestion that American Baptists in particular are working toward a theocratic regime, noting that “the whole idea of Baptist faith cuts against the integration of Church and state.”

And what’s wrong with ecumenical cooperation in the public sphere? Archbishop Chaput remarks:

The cooperation of Catholics and evangelicals was quite rare when I was a young priest. Their current mutual aid, the ecumenism that seems to so worry La Civilta Cattolica, is a function of shared concerns and principles, not ambition for political power.

Ordinarily one might think of Father Spadaro (“the mouthpiece of Pope Francis”) as a champion of dialogue in general and ecumenical dialogue in particular. But not here. Rather than reaching out to reassure the readers who were appalled by the essay, he doubled down, as it his wont. On his Twitter account he cited the angry reaction as a demonstration of the essay’s accuracy: “The reaction of the ‘haters’ seems a clear sign that our article is telling the truth about the ‘ecumenism of hate.’” There is no impulse here toward “accompanying” people who have other ideas; only a willingness to demonize the “haters” who disagree. He charges that American conservatives see their political battles as contests between good and evil, but Father Spadaro seems to adopt that attitude himself.

By the way, I cannot provide a link to Father Spadaro’s tweet (above) because I—like all those who criticize his views—have been blocked from access to his Twitter account. Dialogue, anyone?)

Before moving on to another subject—and I hope to a more rational argument—let me make two final points about the Civilta Cattolica essay: one minor, the other more important:

In the essay, Spadaro and Figueroa refer to the “value voter” bloc in America. A friend in Rome called attention to a detail that I had not noticed when I read the essay. In the US, it is invariably described as the “valueS voter” bloc; no one ordinarily uses the singular. Or almost no one. When my sharp-eyed friend searched the Web for uses of the singular “value voter,” he turned up a list of references in left-wing publications. Maybe the authors of the Civilta essay intended to use the plural, and I’m making too much of a simple typo. But it’s a coincidence, at least, that the term, unfamiliar to American ears, turns out to be favored by left-wing pundits in America and papal advisers in Rome.

But now let me turn my attention to the phrase that I found most curious in the piece: the claim that in international conflicts “the Pope does not want to say who is right or who is wrong for he knows that at the root of conflicts there is always a fight for power.” There is an element of truth, certainly, in the observation that every international conflict involves a struggle for power. However:

  • At the outset, notice how bizarre it is to hear that the Pope “does not want to say who is right or who is wrong.” Ordinarily don’t we think of that as part of the job description for a Roman Pontiff: to help us distinguish between right and wrong?
  • Sometimes a fight for power does involve a contest between right and wrong. St. John Paul II perceived a worldwide battle between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death.” The Church should not shrink from that battle.
  • Moreover Pope Francis has been quite clear in his statements on what he considers right and wrong on issues such as immigration, the environment, and arms trafficking. The claim made by Spadaro and Figueroa seems demonstrably inaccurate.
  • But maybe the authors mean that the Pope is reluctant to take sides on specific sorts of issues: military conflicts (as in Syria) or political conflicts (as in Venezuela). Fair enough. Prudence dictates that the Vatican should always be cautious about statements that could be interpreted as advocacy for a partisan political viewpoint. Which is why the Civilta essay should never have been written.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jim.K - Jul. 26, 2017 2:40 PM ET USA

    I disagree with "SavedbyGrace" No response to an attack, physical or verbal usually means you agree or you have no reply and you give up. Jesus did reply to those who had legitimate authority over Him; e.g., Pontius Pilate. (Sp). "Are you a king? Yes, but my kingdom is not of this world..." He did not reply to those who did not have authority over Him.

  • Posted by: Saved by Grace - Jul. 23, 2017 4:06 PM ET USA

    Sometimes I wonder if these unjust criticisms would get less traction if we simple made no reply at all. Sort of like Jesus when he was on trial. I for one would not even know about this incident if it were not for rebuttal articles. While I agree with the rebuttals, I think it's pretty unbecoming to fight in public. Let the bullies from the Vatican wonder why we make no response to their left leaning tripe!

  • Posted by: iprayiam5731 - Jul. 20, 2017 9:20 AM ET USA

    Concerning the Twitter post, must be nice to be able to claim that the very fact that people disagree with you proves you're right. That's basically an "I know you are but what am I?" response. Even sadder than the article itself is this display of absolute disregard for logic, principled argument, or even honest debate with detractors. How about respond to criticism with academic rigor instead cheap insults, dismissing and claiming victory over critique by virtue of its existence

  • Posted by: shrink - Jul. 20, 2017 6:13 AM ET USA

    This partisan vision (as bad as it is) is a much less serious problem than an earlier revelation by Spadaro, who claims that "2 + 2 in Theology can make 5." If Spadaro really believes this, in the metaphysical sense that he seems to intend, then he is mad; for consider Spadaro's willingness to deny an obvious logical necessity, and then think of what becomes of his understanding of facts. Consider also, to the extent that this Pope listens to him, does he share in the madness?